Just what makes a good job and employer? Is it just about money and the more tangible rewards, or is it more subtle than that? At sea even the simple things are complicated, how can life and work be made better?
LIFE LESS ORDINARY
Employers naturally exert incredible influence over their employees. Even in offices and shops, the experience of workers is shaped by the views, philosophy and the way of operating within their company and superiors.
Depending on the employer the effect can be good, bad or just plain ugly, and at sea this is magnified. Seafarers do not simply work, they eat, sleep and live within the sphere of influence of their employer. This means that every action can have a massive impact on the quality of life.
A cut in the feeding rate here, a withdrawal of some service or welfare initiative there – suddenly things that would perhaps just be frustrating in the office ashore can become extremely detrimental and tough.
The challenge for seafarers is not just working, but living too. The ship is a home and a workplace, so how can it be made better and what lessons can be learned from the biggest and best employers ashore? As a provider of news, content and connectivity at sea, we know these things matter.
THE HONOUR ROLL
It is a sad fact that working in shipping, or indeed the wider “maritime” industry, is unlikely to place any of us in the highest performing employer brackets. It does not seem to be an industry which punches its weight in any of the categories.
From the UK and USA, all manner of surveys list the “Best Employer” – across all different sizes companies, listed firms, and even tiny start-ups. Alas maritime firms are very rarely, if ever found.
None of The Times, Fortune or Forbes “Best Employers” lists highly feature shipping companies. So it seems, neither the executives ashore nor crews at sea are benefitting from working for the best. They are missing out on the positives that good employment practice can bring.
According to The Times, there are a number of key facets which separate the best employers from the rest. These include:
• Leadership: How employees feel about the head of the company and its senior managers
• Wellbeing: How staff feel about the stress, pressure and the balance between their work and home duties
• Giving something back: How companies put back into society generally and the local community
• Personal growth: Do staff feel challenged by their job and well trained
• Management: How staff feel towards their immediate boss and managers
• Pride: Feelings about the company
• Team: How staff feel about their immediate colleagues
• Rewards: How happy the workforce is with their pay and benefits
If someone in a shipping company asked of the ways in which they could perhaps improve the employment experiences of seafarers and even those working in offices ashore, the trite answer may be “google it”. Actually though, that is perhaps exactly what they should do.
Google is repeatedly one of the best, if not the best, performing employer in the USA. So that is exactly what they do, they think about what will make life better, and what that will mean for the company.
There is altruism in looking after employees, but there is good business sense too. According to research, companies that effectively appreciate employees enjoy a return on equity and assets of more than triple that experienced by firms which don’t.
Looking after people, looks after the business. It may not be appropriate or even possible for shipping companies to ape all that a company such as Google does for its staff. However, it would certainly seem that the lessons that deliver consistent high performance and happy, satisfied staff are worth looking at more deeply.
THEORY ON ITS HEAD
The key response when asking how Google does it, is that it puts as much effort and firepower into shaping its people as it does its products. Implementing leadership practices that optimise human performance in the workplace are key to they do, because they matter to what they produce.
The traditional theories suggest that companies should squeeze as much out of people while paying them as little as possible. Which is sadly what does happen at sea, and there are some crews that don’t get paid at all when shipowners abandon them.
The concern is that shipping is effectively living in the past, with outmoded views on how to get the best from people. Ok, demonstrating excellence at sea is hard. Avoiding collisions and arriving where you are meant to be, when you are meant to be there is the simple order of the day.
This can mean that competence is the only measure we have, and that means that a lowest common denominator effect wins through. Good enough is good enough, and is all that is needed. Does that tell the whole story though?
WHAT DO THEY DO?
Google revers its employees, and seeks to not just appeal to their minds in motivating performance, but also to their hearts. While you might want to reach for the sick bag, don’t just yet…as this reverence has helped its stock appreciate by over 650% since the firm’s IPO seven and a half years ago.
So while the Dow Jones average is up by just 44% in that same time, a company which invests heavily in its people is not just outpacing the market, it is lapping them time and time again.
According to a new book on Google’s employment blueprint, there are a number of key facets of their ways of dealing with people. Can they transfer and make the leap to other companies and more especially to shipping and seafarers? Well let’s see…
Being a great place to work: Google when it was small recognised the value of being a great place to work. This helped to attract and retain talent. Of course, different definitions and metrics will exist for what “great” means – but smiling faces, a low staff churn, and content people will give an indication.
How can your business measure how it is doing and then react to any necessary changes? Perhaps even just asking could be just the kick start a company needs. Ask seafarers what they want…and of what makes them happy.
Inspiring work: Now it can perhaps be tough to always have people working on projects that inspire them. But actually shipping has a real upper hand in this.
Seafarers should feel inspired – they have potentially the best office in the world – the seas, skies and space as far as the eye, binoculars and radar can see. That is inspirational, so it must be that the other requirements we are placing on them are detrimental.
The single greatest reason most workers grow unhappy and disengaged in their jobs is because organisations design their work very poorly. Working under safety management systems created by distant consultants, buried under paperwork, or working when tired and fatigued – these are the enemies of inspirational work.
Employees have a voice: Google’s leadership team believes in giving people true influence in how the firm is run. That is a very powerful and compelling message. Telling employees that that have the means to shape how the business is run, well that is trust and transparency and translates into massive positives.
Seafarers, particularly senior ones, they know what works and what doesn’t. They know how ships can be made to run more safely and efficiently. Sadly today many office staff do not give enough respect or credence to the views from the fleet. That is a major mistake. If you value people, give them voice, and really listen to what is said.
At Google the company leaders regularly respond to the top 20 most-asked questions by staff. Alas in too many shipping companies even safety meeting minutes are given just a cursory once over and ignored. There needs to be real communication.
It is not easy for companies to embrace such change. Of course these issues can be made all the more complex in shipping when the fact that crews can be far removed from the actual owners of the vessel. The chain of responsibility is so often stretched from owners, charterers, managers and through to the manning agents. So who should be doing the right thing?
Well the answer is that if everyone did the right thing, then not only would life at sea be improved, but businesses would excel too. Sometimes doing innovative difficult things can be a competitive advantage, but sometimes it is also about being sustainable too.
These things, these clever things that Google, Apple, Facebook, NASA and the other top performers do may not improve a struggling market, they won’t send the freight rates up, they won’t get vessels fixed, they are not short term solutions.
Thinking short term is not the answer of course, learning from the best employers will make ships safer and more efficient, these approaches and techniques allow companies to keep good people when the market cycles rebound. So this is about a long term investment in people, and of doing the right thing for the business.